OnPoint by Keith Ng

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OnPoint: Sock-Puppeting Big Tobacco to Chew on ACT

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  • BenWilson, in reply to George Darroch,

    Your initial response to the fact that tobacco kills people was to wave it away, and then it was to say that old people are a burden to the state and we're better off economically without them.

    No, and no. I don't "wave it away". I consider it an important right to be able to choose to balance harms and goods for oneself. Smokers know it might kill them, but they like smoking. I never said I agree with the economic argument for smoking. I only raised it to show why I don't even consider economic arguments, when it comes to fundamental rights - because they can lead to perverse outcomes just like that. But if you must raise the economic argument, you have to consider whether you are doing it honestly, do the actual numbers on the cost of having lots of old people? Have you done this? If not, why bother with the argument? It's quite likely, in our current system that anything that increases aged mortality actually makes the economy work better. The economics ignores the moral argument, that increased mortality means that these people don't get to enjoy a long life.

    So I don't think you've engaged with the fact that tobacco is an addictive substance which is first typically smoked by those in their early-mid teens

    Since this is the first time you've raised this, is it surprising I haven't engaged with it?

    You've failed to explain why despite all of this, the state is illegitimate in putting (quite minor, in both relative and absolute terms) restrictions on its sale, use, and price. Which, if I understand you correctly, is your claim.

    You don't understand, because you've never actually asked my position. I've already addressed your illegitimacy straw man. My objections to nicotine control are pretty specific, as I've repeated, I don't think corralling smokers who aren't harming anyone is a good thing to do. If you can argue an actual harm to anyone else, that might work on me. Simon Grigg has given some more detail in the context of Bangkok, which is very different city to anything we have in NZ, with a very different climate. I also think the aim of the taxes on smoking are simply sin-taxes, tickling an urge in puritans that I find quite unpleasant myself. I'll address this below in response to HORansome, who says:

    Well, if you're a utilitarian, then I think you should be agreeing with us rather than disagreeing. The public utility of restricting tobacco use (better living, everyone!) is a good which rather outstrips the limited private utility of smokers' not being harangued about their habit.

    You know I studied philosophy too, right? Your evaluation of the utilities is simply not the same as mine, at least not in all cases. You don't seem to account at all for the enjoyment that smokers get from what they are doing. Both the actual smoking, and also the freedom to choose to smoke, which has a big rebel factor in it. Furthermore, they really enjoy it, in a lot of cases. I'm surprised you would have forgotten this, but I guess utilitarianism somehow ended up meaning harm minimization over the last 150 years, so it's easy to conflate the two.

    Also, if you're a utilitarian you'll need a really good reason to think the means of production of tobacco production, the selling of tobacco (with its associated targeted advertising) et al aren't factors in deciding the public good of tobacco restriction).

    That's an argument to ban tobacco made under bad conditions. But the conditions don't even come into the restrictions at all, because the arguments have never been utilitarian. They're about the harm caused here. And only the harm, not the pleasure, which IMHO, is simply considered immoral. That's why I think puritanism has deep hooks in this debate.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8737 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Simon Grigg,

    that was a killer live

    assuredly

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16996 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to BenWilson,

    the freedom to choose to smoke, which has a big rebel factor in it

    again, you're ignoring addiction.
    more rebellious to choose tofu

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16996 posts Report Reply

  • HORansome, in reply to BenWilson,

    You don't seem to account at all for the enjoyment that smokers get from what they are doing. Both the actual smoking, and also the freedom to choose to smoke, which has a big rebel factor in it. Furthermore, they really enjoy it, in a lot of cases. I'm surprised you would have forgotten this, but I guess utilitarianism somehow ended up meaning harm minimization over the last 150 years, so it's easy to conflate the two.

    Having accused George of straw manning your argument now you are straw manning mine. Well done, sir.

    I do factor in a smoker's enjoyment (that's why I said "limited private utility"). If you have an argument as to how individual utility trumps public utility in this case I'd like to hear it. Simply saying that people really enjoy smoking (which is a, but not the only, factor, in its utility). Smoking also has negative utility to a smoker (let alone other people around the smoker), and whilst some utility is psychological most of it is not; most modern versions of the hedonic calculus factor in known risks as being part of an activity's utility.

    And, once again, you're just being wilfully ignorant about the harms of smoking when you say:

    I don't think corralling smokers who aren't harming anyone is a good thing to do.

    Also, if you are going to accuse us of characterising you as holding straw man positions, please don't do the same to us with your puritanism line. Some of us have actually studied the physiological, sociological and psychological harms in this case.

    Tāmaki Makaurau • Since Sep 2008 • 424 posts Report Reply

  • Carol Stewart, in reply to BenWilson,

    I also think the aim of the taxes on smoking are simply sin-taxes

    Oh, for goodness' sake. a) do you accept that smoking imposes burdens on the public health system and b) do you not think perhaps the aim of these taxes is to offset these costs?

    You know I studied philosophy too, right?

    Did they offer classes in wearing people down in debate?

    Christchurch • Since Jul 2008 • 665 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to HORansome,

    I do factor in a smoker's enjoyment (that's why I said "limited private utility").

    No wonder I missed it. To call something that you do 20-odd times a day and get genuine pleasure from "limited private utility" caused me confusion. I apologize for suggesting you forgot the actual theory, but I totally disagree about the extent to which the utility is limited.

    If you have an argument as to how individual utility trumps public utility in this case I'd like to hear it.

    What public utility? Please be clear which one you're talking about here, I don't want the above confusion to re-occur.

    Smoking also has negative utility to a smoker (let alone other people around the smoker), and whilst some utility is psychological most of it is not; most modern versions of the hedonic calculus factor in known risks as being part of an activity's utility.

    Not clear which direction this factoring works, though. For some, risk is exciting. Also, the very sense of freedom itself is something that matters to some people way more than to others. Who are you, really, to weigh up any of this private utility on behalf of others? You can only say how it works for you.

    And, once again, you're just being wilfully ignorant about the harms of smoking when you say:

    I don't think corralling smokers who aren't harming anyone is a good thing to do.

    No, you're just not taking the time to read carefully. I'm defining the smokers I'm talking about in this sentence as ones who aren't harming people, and saying corralling them is not good. Having got that simple statement of my own personal opinion on the morality of such interference, it's on others to show that it doesn't apply in particular cases. Like smoking out of doors, where the volume of air into which the smoke dissipates is enormous. It's a very long way from the harm generated by passive smoking to just disliking an odour that you are sensitive to. On that one, unless in, say, an actual crowd, it seems to me that people could simply do what they do for all things that they don't much like, avoid them. It's really not a lot to ask.

    please don't do the same to us with your puritanism line

    I'm calling it how I see it. But sure, I don't accuse any particular person of puritanism. I just find it very strange that no reference has been made except by me to the actual pleasure of smoking that many smokers I've met have claimed is substantial. It's like that doesn't even exist at all, like it's incomprehensible, or that there's some patronizing explanation for it, that shows they're actually wrong about their own evaluation of their own pleasure. Feel free to tell me that you actually accept that this pleasure is real, and that you do actually weigh it up in your calculus.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8737 posts Report Reply

  • Andrew E, in reply to Carol Stewart,

    At the risk of getting burnt by real philosphers, and people who have done real research in this field, I'll jump in to this debate.

    b) do you not think perhaps the aim of these taxes is to offset these costs?

    Arguably, the reason why governments don't ban tobacco is that they know (conceivably from the evidence of consumption of illicit substances such as cannabis) that banning it wouldn't stop it being consumed, but that if you've made sale and/or consumption illegal, it's a bit difficult to tax it. So, if you know you're going to have continuing costs to the health system (and other parts of society) from people continuing to smoke tobacco, even though its illegal, why not keep it legal but tax it highly and take other steps to discourage people from taking up the habit in the first place?

    Or have I misunderstood the argument put forward by 'practical' (i.e. not philosophically purist) politicians and officials for the last few decades?

    174.77 x 41.28 • Since Sep 2008 • 199 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Carol Stewart,

    Oh, for goodness' sake. a) do you accept that smoking imposes burdens on the public health system and b) do you not think perhaps the aim of these taxes is to offset these costs?

    a) I accept that smoking kills people. I'm not sure how much of a burden this actually is, since everyone dies in the end, and people with shorter lives could easily burden it less.
    b) It's a handy justification (although quite possibly completely unfair if the numbers are really done properly), but no, I don't think that's why it's taxed. It's taxed to discourage it.

    Did they offer classes in wearing people down in debate?

    It's how the whole thing started. Read any Plato...

    But I'm not trying to be difficult. I'm trying to engage this debate, rather than patronizingly agree with things I just don't, or go all quiet, as is the more common practice in this particularly polite debating club.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8737 posts Report Reply

  • HORansome, in reply to Andrew E,

    What public utility? Please be clear which one you're talking about here, I don't want the above confusion to re-occur.

    Societal goods. Utility to society as a whole. You know, the main factor in most modern forms of utilitarianism when it comes to discussion of public policy.

    I think you're vastly overstating the psychological enjoyment of smokers as being constitutive of the utility they get from smoking. If you want to do that, fine, but then you also need to factor in what addictions and health harms also play in that utility, as well as the future goods and harms. Also, given that you continue to ignore the role of addiction (which might undermine the enjoyment principle if the pleasure smokers get is actually satisfying symptoms of withdrawal), it's hard to take your claims of being a utilitarian seriously.

    Tāmaki Makaurau • Since Sep 2008 • 424 posts Report Reply

  • Carol Stewart, in reply to BenWilson,

    It's taxed to discourage it

    But that's hardly the same as a sin tax, if there are sound reasons to discourage it, which I think have been demonstrated here.

    Christchurch • Since Jul 2008 • 665 posts Report Reply

  • izogi, in reply to BenWilson,

    Like smoking out of doors, where the volume of air into which the smoke dissipates is enormous. It's a very long way from the harm generated by passive smoking to just disliking an odour that you are sensitive to. On that one, unless in, say, an actual crowd, it seems to me that people could simply do what they do for all things that they don't much like, avoid them. It's really not a lot to ask.

    I'll leave aside the question of whether fresh air should be a right, but I still think what you've just said about avoiding it is a simplistic and incorrect assertion.

    When there are frequent public outdoor spaces designed for people to stand or interact as part of what they need to do from day to day, it's only a matter of time before someone shows up, lights up, breathes out and stinks up the air for everyone occupying the same space. I'm talking about bus stops, train stations, footpaths where there's little choice but to share the same air as 50 people ahead of you, outdoor stairways, park benches, tables outside cafes, lookout points, ticket outlets, pedestrian crossings, taxi stands, doorways of any large building you might happen to work in which often have people standing outside for a smoko. With pretty much anywhere that you might need to stop and wait outside for any length of time whilst in a populated area. the chances are that other people need to stop and wait there too, and smokers who are waiting tend to pull out a ciggie. You could spend your outdoor time in the middle of a deserted sports field and not interact with any public spaces, but it's unrealistic if you want to live a normal life going to work day-to-day in an urban environment and avoid being affected by smokers. Perhaps you just don't notice or care about air around you, but it's there and avoiding it is a very difficult thing. Avoiding it, for anyone who wants to, is a lot to ask.

    Wellington • Since Jan 2007 • 439 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite, in reply to BenWilson,

    a) I accept that smoking kills people. I’m not sure how much of a burden this actually is, since everyone dies in the end, and people with shorter lives could easily burden it less.

    I’ll restrain my anger over that last phrase and attribute it to your naiveté.

    The care of people with cancer is not cheap, and it is rather drawn-out too, which if one considers non-monetary maters, can be rather burdensome in… oh, what’s the euphemism? Shall we say “non-objective”?

    I’m having to deal with a family member doing the dying thing now due to a cancer (not smoking-related, but nonetheless…), and another who may – or may not – have dodged that bullet (which may or may not be due to his smoking – but maybe it’s due to a supernova long ago producing a gamma ray photon that hit a DNA molecule in a cell somewhere in his sinus) .

    Please don’t be so glib – there are real effects. We all die indeed, but the way we die, how long it takes, how much it hurts, not only for those dying, but those around them… well, they all matter a lot, and they cost in more than financial terms.

    this particularly polite debating club

    You say that like it’s a bad thing.

    A little taste and tact please? They’re not mere societal conventions, they’re founded on basic respect for other people.

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 981 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to BenWilson,

    I accept that smoking kills people

    Causes broader harms than just that (which have burdens/costs).

    snap

    None of this is unsettled stuff, so it makes about as much sense to me as arguing about climate change - also a popular libertarian sport. Perhaps an explanation of why (from that perspective) personal freedom is so much more important than other values could be more productive.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16996 posts Report Reply

  • HORansome, in reply to BenWilson,

    It's how the whole thing started. Read any Plato...

    It might be how it started, but it's not how it's done now. Most of us contemporary philosophers think Socrates was a dick.

    Tāmaki Makaurau • Since Sep 2008 • 424 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Kracklite,

    I'd echo that, having farewelled someone this year. Reducing suffering is an all too human benefit in itself, regardless of dollars or other numbers.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16996 posts Report Reply

  • HORansome, in reply to BenWilson,

    I'm defining the smokers I'm talking about in this sentence as ones who aren't harming people, and saying corralling them is not good.

    I think part of the problem in this debate is that we don't think your group (the smokers who harm no one) actually exist and thus we are talking about the group that does exist, smokers who do cause some harm to others.

    Tāmaki Makaurau • Since Sep 2008 • 424 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite, in reply to HORansome,

    Socrates was a dick

    Well, we mostly have Plato’s word on Socrates, and Plato definitely was a dick. If I had a time machine, a rifle and a convenient grassy knoll…

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 981 posts Report Reply

  • Carol Stewart, in reply to Sacha,

    as arguing about climate change - also a popular libertarian sport

    An interesting comparison as accusations of puritanism are also bandied about on this topic, usually in relation to people who advocate for urgent action to reduce carbon emissions.

    Christchurch • Since Jul 2008 • 665 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Carol Stewart,

    "No man is an island" is an appealing rejoinder as ice caps melt and sea levels rise..

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16996 posts Report Reply

  • John Armstrong, in reply to BenWilson,

    or go all quiet, as is the more common practice in this particularly polite debating club.

    As a minor contributor to this discussion I guess you probably aren't taking about me, but I feel obliged to say that I've just got back from seeing Fire in Babylon at the Hamilton film fest, and have not been sulking.

    Although, I must say that I too have detected a whiff of bad faith, particularly in the light of all the clever, reasoned stuff Ben has said here over the last few years. I just can't be bothered 'debating' with anyone who would seriously offer the line that young folks not living to be old folks because of addiction (or a rational choice to experience pleasure - whatever) can be viewed as an economic good. I agree that my earlier appeal to 'commonsense' was weak (I was tired and looking forward to the film), but I retain the right to appeal to basic human values. These are real peoples' lives we are talking about here.

    And I speak from experience: there is very little pleasure in succumbing to your addiction,

    Hamilton • Since Nov 2007 • 132 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to izogi,

    @izogi

    Avoiding it, for anyone who wants to, is a lot to ask.

    I never seem to have the slightest trouble.

    @kracklite

    Please don’t be so glib – there are real effects

    I've not denied that.

    A little taste and tact please? They’re not mere societal conventions, they’re founded on basic respect for other people.

    Show me anywhere I've been disrespectful. All that's happening is I'm dissenting from a group opinion. Naturally not every point is going to be addressed since it's now slipping towards 6 vs 1. I'm doing my best.

    @sacha

    Perhaps an explanation of why (from that perspective) personal freedom is so much more important than other values could be more productive.

    I don't think that. But it is a very important value. In the smoking debate, those anti seem to try to frame it out altogether, or evaluate it on behalf of others. That's not good thinking.

    @horansome

    Most of us contemporary philosophers think Socrates was a dick.

    I'm sure that's going to go through the same cycle of changes it has since the time of Socrates.

    I think part of the problem in this debate is that we don't think your group (the smokers who harm no one) actually exist and thus we are talking about the group that does exist, smokers who do cause some harm to others.

    That's ridiculous. A smoker alone in an open air public place is harming no one else. My definition wasn't of smokers who never cause any harm to anyone else, ever. It was of smokers who aren't harming anyone at the time of the corralling.

    But yes, since you wish to make so fine a point on it, I am writing off the extremely tiny harm of smelling someone smoking from a distance as "no harm". It's only an approximation - the harm is roughly the same as many others you might be simultaneously experiencing, if you are sensitive enough. A loud bus may be passing, hurting your ears. Someone may have farted nearby, causing you to inhale a small quantity of methane. A busker may be playing discordantly. The sun may be inconveniently reflecting in your eyes from a building window. A passer by might brush against you, dislodging your balance. Your coffee might have been overbrewed.

    All of these things are just things you deal with in life, as part of being surrounded by other people getting on with their lives, involving extremely minor efforts on your part. You could hold hands to your ears. You could move away from the farter. You could put your mp3 player into your ears. You could turn away from the sun, or put some glasses on, or squint. You can step to recover your balance, or stand aside to let people pass. You could go to different cafe next time.

    Yes, it is possible to smoke in a particularly obnoxious way. It's also very easy to point that out, which most smokers will take immediate note of, conveniently moving away, or extinguishing their cigarette. Similar remedies apply if someone is being obnoxious in other ways, like if the busker starts following you, or someone is reflecting at you with something they are holding, or someone looks like barging into your, or is leaning into you. These things do NOT require legislation and specially appointed officials. Just ordinary human respect, arising from ordinary human interaction.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8737 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to BenWilson,

    A smoker alone in an open air public place is harming no one else.

    Wrong. Most of the harms I experience from smokers come from sharing a publicly-funded health system with them. Not because they offend my nose or pollute my lungs.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16996 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to BenWilson,

    Show me anywhere I've been disrespectful.

    Treating people as economic facts or logical constructions tends to offend fellow humans.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16996 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite, in reply to BenWilson,

    Show me anywhere I’ve been disrespectful.

    I’m sorry, but that just strikes me as defensive, and a little bit smug. An immediate family member whom I love is dying of cancer, another might yet. To talk about these people as if they were “burdens” is disrespectful.

    You don’t have to agree, but you do seem to be very naive about people who have had to deal with addiction, or people who have had to deal with loved ones who are dying. To think of them as economic units who are a burden on society is, in my humble opinion, disrespectful of their worth as people.

    I’ll forgive you because you are lucky. Pray (if you are religious) that you remain lucky. The odds are that you won't be, however.

    All that’s happening is I’m dissenting from a group opinion.

    Sociopathy is a poor substitute for machismo, and I’ve never seen the worth of machismo anyway.

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 981 posts Report Reply

  • Keir Leslie,

    Wrong. Most of the harms I experience from smokers come from sharing a publicly-funded health system with them. Not because they offend my nose or pollute my lungs.

    Smokers die younger, but they don't age faster. So they work until 65, like non smokers, paying taxes all the time, and then they go on the pension (and start costing the government money). They draw the pension for a decade or so less than non smokers. Like all of us, smokers will cost the state a vast amount of money in the final months of their lives, but that is a fact about modern death. Smokers are not in fact a noticeable burden on the public revenue, or the public health system.

    Since Jul 2008 • 1395 posts Report Reply

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